India and Nepal share a land border of 1750 kilometers with Nepal touching five states of India – Sikkim, West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Most of this border was fixed by the Treaty of Sugauli signed in 1816 between the East India Company and the Nepalese Royal Court. It marked the Kali (Mahakali) River as Nepal’s western extremity, i.e. Nepal’s territory only lay to the east of the Kali.
Nepal had recently launched an ‘updated’ map of its territory claiming roughly 400 square kilometers of territory in the areas of Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh, which have always been recorded as being West of the Kali and in India.
Kathmandu claims that these areas lie to the east of the major tributary of the Kali and hence belong to Nepal. This is even though surveys and maps for over 150 years, including maps of Nepal, maintained that the main source of the Kali is the stream coming from Kalapani which means that these areas are west of the Kali.
The areas are in the Indian state of Uttarakhand near the borders with both Nepal and China and have been traditionally used by pilgrims from India proceeding on the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. In order to ease the arduous journey of the pilgrims going to Mount Kailash and Mansarovar, India recently completed the construction of a metaled road from Tawaghat to Lipulekh covering the track in India used by the pilgrims. This road was inaugurated in April 2020 by the Indian Defence Minister.
The Government of Nepal reacted immediately by claiming that the road passes through Nepali territory and called upon India in early May to refrain from construction activity in the area.
A few days thereafter, on 18th May, the Nepal Cabinet endorsed an ‘updated map’ extending Nepali territory till Limpiyadhura, The new updated map was unveiled on 20th May with Nepali Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli declaring in Parliament that this was a genuine effort to bring back Nepal’s land.
This unjustified cartographic assertion was met by a strong diplomatic reaction from India asking Nepal to refrain from undertaking such unilateral acts and respecting India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moreover, hope was expressed that the Nepalese leadership would create a positive atmosphere for diplomatic dialogue to resolve outstanding boundary issues. Both countries share the bonds of similar cultural heritage and values.
India and Nepal ties at the level of common people are among the most unique and special characterized by a ‘roti-beti’ relationship with binding ties of religion and way of life. The strongest of economic ties – India is the largest foreign investor in Nepal and by far its largest trading partner- further underscore the closeness of the relationship. The relationship reflects geography and has been borne out by history.
As the world and, indeed, India and Nepal grapple with the Corona pandemic and extraordinarily challenging economic times ahead, both countries need to work together to mitigate the suffering of the people.
A key issue relating to the ‘updated’ map is that it redraws the map of Nepal that is incorporated in the country’s national emblem as recorded in the country’s Constitution. For the new ‘updated’ map to, therefore, gain legal sanctity, a constitutional amendment is required. Accordingly, a Constitutional Amendment Bill was registered in the Nepalese Parliament and was to have been taken up for discussion on 26 May. This did not happen as the bill was not listed among the items to be taken up on the 26th. Constitutional Amendments in Nepal require a two-thirds majority in Parliament
Nepal has now deferred the discussion in its Parliament on the ‘updated’ map. This reflects pragmatism on Kathmandu’s part. Both the countries have displayed maturity by respecting each other’s’ sensitivities. It is imperative that the bilateral ties are strengthened to even closer cooperation between the two neighbours.
Nepal by not taking up of the sensitive constitutional amendment in its Parliament has signaled the victory of the people of Nepal and India who are bound together in the closest of ties.
Script: Amb. Manjeev Puri, Former Indian Ambassador to Nepal